The Crane Machine at Pizza Hut
In less than a month I’ll have hit 9 years in L.A. When I actually think about it, 9 years, it feels unbelievable. It feels like time has flown and I recall, as if it were yesterday, driving into Los Angeles, via the 101, scared and excited and a little out of my mind… but then I sit back and process this past, almost decade, and it feels like I’ve earned my time here. All the goodness, as well as all the tough times…the moment where I called my mom and told her, “my phone was going to be shut off because I couldn’t pay my bill, but don’t worry…things are looking on the up and up. I’m gonna be fine.” I learned a little bit, in that moment, about trusting in the unknown. I guess my mom did too. I’ll be honest…it was and has been, at times here, a little unnerving.
I remember doing extra work on the Santa Monica Pier for this film called Cellular and watching William H. Macy prepare for his scene. Before every take, same crouched position, deep in thought. I just happened to be positioned in the most ideal of spots, placed there by the 2nd A.D. to, “cross camera but not look into it”, but I was close enough to this man to watch him working before he was actually working. He was so focused, so full. This wasn’t just work to him…this was his passion. I could feel it from 30 feet away. It was serious business. And I wanted what he had. That was 3 months into my time here in L.A… I learned a little bit, in that moment, about what really matters. Focus being of the utmost importance.
I remember going into my first audition for a film. A seedy theatre on Sunset Blvd. for an indie short… I’d been trained in the theatre up until this point and had worked very little on camera. It wasn’t until I left the audition that I realized I’d placed myself in such a way (the way I had rehearsed at home over and over where the person I was talking to was to my left) that the camera had not captured a single frame of my face. The camera was to my right. So all it saw was the back of my head. For two minutes. Wow….I learned, in that moment, that I definitely have a lot more to learn.
I remember being told by peers on some of my first sets, that I was “soooo green” and being told time and time again “you’re not right for the part, you’re too quirky” and then begging them to still meet me, because people had told me I reminded them of Brittney Murphy and “you’re looking for a Brittney Murphy type” and you have to see what I look like in person, only to be told, this time to my face, the same exact thing. I learned a little bit, in that moment, about perseverance.
I remember booking my first co-star on the show Gilmore Girls and sitting next to Lauren Graham in the make-up trailer while she read a script for a feature she may do “while on hiatus.” (She said this to her friend doing her make up, not me of course. I was just a fly on the wall.) She sat there reading, her breakfast burrito in one hand and that script in the other. As I watched her (carefully of course, didn’t want to freak the poor woman out) a continuous thought rolled around in my head… I want that. I mean, I had the breakfast burrito. But that. All of it. Consistency. I got to set that day and said my line, which was, no joke, “Rats.” That’s it. That’s all I said. But I left set glowing. I learned a little bit in that moment about patience. I knew I had to give it time. And enjoying it all, even the small stuff.
Or the moment where, while driving the 5 freeway made the executive decision to quit my job, because I believed, in the inner most part of myself, that I could make my living as an actor without a back up plan, that I’d never have to look back. That I could survive. And that if something made me feel crappy, if I felt as if I dying inside (dramatic I know) I needed to be the one to make the change. I arrived at my job that day, walked into the restaurant where I worked, and gave my 2-week notice. I never looked back. I learned, in that moment, that sometimes you have to trust your gut and take the risk. What’s the worst that could happen?
I remember walking into one of my first big Guest Star auditions and seeing tons of girls that I knew from various shows on TV…. a couple were on Mad Men, one of the girls was on Weeds, the list went on and on…and for the first time in my time in L.A. I actually stopped believing I didn’t belong and started believing the opposite. I thought to myself, how fortunate am I to be considered for this part, to be here with such a talented pool of ladies. And I focused on how much I love what I do, how what we all were able to do, on that night, at that callback, was a gift. And I went in and I had fun. And I almost booked the job. I cried a little sure, but I learned just a little bit more about letting go. That focusing on having fun truly resonates.
I remember feeling tired. Like I needed something else to fill me up. That waiting on auditions made me feel out of control, and not in a way that was good. So I started to write poems. Then friends said, “find someone who can play guitar.” So I did. And I started a band with a beautiful soul named Jen. And we toured and played many gigs and she helped, and the music helped, and the new friends we made through our music helped fill that void. I learned a lot in those moments about staying busy. Doing something positive with the down time. That it mattered. And I felt free again.
Then I remember getting the call for another audition, for a show I’d dreamed of being on. Mad Men. And waiting in that long narrow hallway, with all of these exceptional girls (again), and finding that I am suddenly calm and focused but only because I started to focus on the character first…I remember thinking, “I need to be the best version of Dottie that I can possibly be right now.” I focused on her and I walked in and had a great callback. And this time, I booked the part. I learned a little bit more about focusing less on myself.
I remember working with an amazing group of actors through Steppenwolf West, under the tutelage of the wonderful Jeff Perry and it hitting me…really hitting me for the first time, in my time in L.A. that playing a character is a freaking fantastic thing. I had always shied away from being called a ‘character actor’ but suddenly I wasn’t so afraid. That, in actuality, being a character actor opens you up to endless possibilities and if you can take yourself out of the equation and focus solely on the characters needs and the characters wants, you will be all the better for it. I started focusing on finding the voice of the character I was taking on and just playing…then from there, the body, then her mannerisms, her fears, why she feels the way she feels, what happened to her? The list went on and on and the fun continued….I learned a little bit more about enjoying and reveling in the mysteries of these wonderful beings. And I embraced being a character.
And I remember getting a call from my agent telling me I’d be going in for the role of Ellen May on Justified…that she was an oxy-cotton addicted prostitute. Of course, my initial thought being, “well, I’m never going to get this.” But then, because of all my experiences in this city, because of all the preparation, in learning about perseverance and patience, in having down time, the work in exploring characters, the ability to focus less on me, the ability to let go and no matter what happens, revel in the work, to let go of expectations, to just GO IN AND HAVE FUN….because of all of this, I am now playing this character. And going into my 3rd season. I get to go to work and explore and play and be Ellen May. And for this, I learned, what it means to be truly thankful. For it all.
Everything I’ve done has lead me to this moment. Even the stuff that I thought didn’t matter. Most of the stuff I’ve shared with you, at the time, seemed small. Not booking. Writing some poems in my down time. Taking a class. But all of it mattered.
I’ve said to friends in the business, and friends of friends…that being in the business we’re in, is kind of like being in one of those stuffed animal crane machines at Pizza Hut. (Hopefully most of you will get this reference.) That the only thing that matters is that you are in the machine. Meaning you’re doing the work. Which for me meant the extra work, and the waiting tables and the workshops where you have less than 10 minutes with a scene in hopes of blowing them away because, well “you paid $50 to be here.” It meant the times when I booked! And the times when I didn’t. It even meant giving myself a break when times were tough but not becoming complacent. As long as you do something for your career every day…you are in the machine. And then, unfortunately, it’s really not up to you. I say that…unfortunately. But really you can choose to see that last bit, of it not really being up to you, as a bad thing. OR you can see it as a great thing. You can enjoy the ride. Not take anything too seriously, but rather be passionate about it. And truly, find the joy in it. That’s what the next 9 years are going to be about for me.
It’s been 9 years. I still have so much to learn. And honestly…that’s a great feeling.